Consultation meetings are being held with local communities regarding new ferry upgrades for Strangford Lough and Rathlin Island.
One of the two ferries at Strangford is to be replaced by summer 2016 with the Rathlin ferry due to be upgraded to a roll-on-roll-off service.
Transport Minister Danny Kennedy said: “One of the ferries used on the Strangford to Portaferry route is approaching the end of its service life. A project has been established to replace this ferry – the MV Strangford – and as part of that process a number of information events have been organised.”
He added: “At Strangford we intend to replace the older ferry with one similar to the other currently in service. We have got the designs of the new ferry available for people to see, which are on show at the information events. This means that we should now be able to go forward for procurement to have it built and delivered by 2016.
“Likewise at Ballycastle we intend to procure a new ferry service which will upgrade it from a foot passenger service to a roll-on, roll-off. We have no delivery date as yet but we hope it will be in the next couple of years.”
A Department of Regional Development spokeswoman said the older ferry at Strangford will continue in use until replaced with the new vessel, so there will be no break in service.
The cost for the new vessel is £6-7 million, depending on the final design and completion of a procurement process, she said.
Down District Council said yesterday that it had no major concerns about the future of the Strangford to Portaferry service except that the running times need to be extended in the mornings, evenings and at other busy periods when it said extra sailings should be laid on in order to deal with the surplus traffic.
The Department of Regional Development responded: “We have met with Down District Council and have had discussions on flexibilities for issues such as late running events.”
An information event about the new ferry took place at the Cuan Hotel, Strangford yesterday. Another takes place at the Portaferry Hotel in Portaferry from 2-7pm today. A similar event for Ballycastle and Rathlin Island is expected in the summer.
‘Changes needed for economy’
Extending the running times of the ferry between Portaferry and Strangford would give the local economy a substantial boost, says Down District Council CEO John Dumigan.
“The service normally runs until 10.30pm at Strangford and 10.45pm at Portaferry but finishes 30 minutes earlier on Saturday,” he said. “But this is much too early if you are out socialising.” Extra sailings should be laid on when traffic is backed up on both sides, he added.